Summer camps, sports leauges help youth stay active, learn life lessons

Photo courtesy Sarah Heinz House




It’s generally accepted that kids need to stay active and get enough exercise to stay healthy and prevent diseases like obesity and heart disease.

But that’s easier said than done.

Allegheny General Hospital pediatrician TaTanisha Smith said that schools have turned their focus to academics with perhaps too much zest.

“There’s not a dedicated time to physical education,” Smith said. Now, Smith said, many schools only hold gym a few times a week, when it used to be a daily class.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids get at least 30 minutes of activity or play time at least four times a week. That play can include organized sports or dedicated exercise, but Smith said even something as simple as running around a park counts.

“It doesn’t have to be structured but just to get them moving and off the couch,” she said. Plus, play time gives children a chance to relax and recharge their mental batteries, something that’s not always easy to do in today’s work-driven world.

Often, she refers kids and their parents to after school programs and summer camps at the YMCA or Sarah Heinz House to give the children a social environment in which to play.

In addition to the physical benefits camps provide, they teach social skills like teamwork, playing fair and how to coordinate and delegate responsibility to others, Smith said.

Stella Petraglia, the youth director at the YMCA on North Avenue in the Central Northside, said kids learn how to be good sports through group activities and games.

“A couple of [the kids] have learned to be more honest,” she said. “If you’re out [in kickball], be honest about it and go sit down.”

She tries to choose games that will teach her day camp kids the YMCA’s four core values of honesty, respect, caring and responsibility, as well as those that are fun and provide physical benefits.

“It’s helpful for them to not know they’re exercising,” Petraglia said. “They’re kind of learning that the world doesn’t revolve around them and teamwork as well.”

Camp can also be a self-esteem booster for otherwise shy kids. Often, more outgoing children will befriend shy ones and encourage them to participate in games.

Petraglia uses encouragement and flexibility to get kids to participate in games rather than force or punishment.

If a child doesn’t want to participate, he can watch for a few minutes and then one of the counselors will pair him up with an older child or counselor who will explain the game and encourage participation. Usually the child will relax and start playing and having fun.

“We also ask them for ideas and let them pick a game that they like,” Petraglia said.